Sometime earlier this year, one of the most elite social events in Washington took place, but without any fanfare or news coverage.
It drew about 1,800 attendees and Grammy-winning rocker Lenny Kravitz performed. Yet there were no written invitations, and the actual date and location were carefully guarded secrets.
The annual charitable event is mischievously known as Spookstock. While many Washington insiders, let alone the public, haven't heard of it, the gala has become a centerpiece for the capital region's tightknit intelligence and military special operations communities.
"I've done my share of formal events and black dress nights. This is a lot more fun," said retired Maj. Gen. Clay Hutmacher, the former director of operations for U.S. Special Operations Command. "It's very casual. If you want to show up in a Def Leppard T-shirt, that's fine."
Now in its seventh year, Spookstock has raised millions for the CIA Officers Memorial Foundation and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which look after the families of CIA officers and special operations forces killed in the field. Last year, after expenses, each charity received about $400,000, according to Spookstock board member Mark Kelton.
The event is essentially fueled by defense contractors and mainstays of the military-industrial complex that pay big money for a table or a balcony box. Kelton, a retired CIA officer, would only say those corporate boxes are "not cheap." Other government employees or members of military who secure an invitation pay a much lower, but still undisclosed, rate.
The invitation list and event details are closely guarded by Kelton and the four-member board. Given the clandestine nature of some of the participants' work life, news coverage and social media postings are avoided. The only real online traces are a smattering of articles, some briefs in intelligence-focused newsletters and a few unauthorized YouTube videos.
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A visit to the Spookstock website reveals a parody of the original Woodstock logo, a password box and nothing else. Spookstocks have been held at a warehouse in Springfield, Virginia, and a farm in Loudoun County, Virginia. Previous attendees have included actors Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel. Kelton says he's constantly fending off invitation requests and adds somewhat proudly that he has never extended an invitation to an active politician.
The guests of honor are a few dozen young beneficiaries — college seniors or recent graduates who have had their entire university education paid for by one of the foundations. Last year, 30 beneficiaries were flown in, Kelton said, with a major airline donating the tickets.
While the CIA foundation focuses exclusively on funding higher education, the special operations fund helps cover preschool, tutoring, SAT prep and college visits in addition to a full scholarship.
"We call it cradle to career," said Hutmacher, the head of the foundation, who estimates that the fund spends an average of $250,000 per child. The standard military death benefit for a soldier killed on duty is a lump-sum payment of $100,000.
Kelton said that losing a parent amid "murky circumstances" can produce a specific sort of trauma among the children.
"You're always wondering how it happened and you can never know," he said. "These are closed worlds."
Kelton said the only networking that's allowed is among the young beneficiaries. The weekend serves as an informal job fair for the new graduates if they want to pursue a career in defense or intelligence.
Beyond the financial help, Kelton said a large element of the event is having beneficiaries meet each other and forge bonds.
"The most important part is to get them all together, because most of these kids have gone through this ordeal on their own," he said. "It's a revelation to them to meet others who went through what they experienced."
The event has grown into a weekend of activities. In addition to tours of Washington and CIA headquarters for the young beneficiaries, corporate sponsors can pay extra for a day of pseudo special-operations training.
But the centerpiece is the concert. Spookstock headliners have included Peter Frampton, ZZ Top and the Steve Miller Band. Kravitz, 55, reflected an attempt to skew a bit younger, Kelton said.
Although Spookstock is relatively new, the charitable foundations that it benefits are much older. The early version of what would develop into the Special Operations Warrior Foundation was created in the wake of Operation Eagle Claw — the 1980 attempt to rescue the 52 hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The operation was aborted by President Jimmy Carter and resulted in the deaths of eight servicemen, leaving behind a total of 17 children.
"Senior leaders at the time passed the hat" to help those children, said Hutmacher, a former commander of the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the Night Stalkers. But the experience led to the creation of what would become the foundation.
"Now most of the wars being fought are with special operations and intelligence," Kelton said. "The pace of losses since 9/11 has increased sharply."
The event may just be growing too fast to remain hidden for much longer.
Kelton had expected about 1,400 attendees this year, which would have been a record. Instead there were 1,800.
The corporate clientele has changed a bit as well.
Kelton said the normal defense contractor crowd has been joined recently by an increasing number of tech companies. Now he said organizers are planning an expansion that would create a springtime Spookstock West event in the tech hub of Austin, Texas.